Toil and Water
Are sailors inherently less biddable than land-lubbers? Many supporters of Alfred Theyer Mahon and the “maritime school” of world history would emphatically agree. They believe that those who have sniffed sea-breezes have forever after something of the Viking rover in their soul. The case of Arthur Ransome, the ex-Bolshevik author of the Swallows and Amazons books, would support such a theory.
The Last Englishman:
the Double Life of Arthur Ransome
Faber and Faber £9.99
Ransome was the ultimate contrarian — a public school man who married Trotsky’s secretary; a Bolshevik supporter who reported to British intelligence. While supporting the toiling, collectivist masses, Ransome was engaged in the ultimate individualist activity of learning to sail a small boat single-handed on the open sea. While his heroes, the Bolshevik revolutionaries, were massacring the Kronstadt sailors, Ransome was having a fine 30-foot sloop built in Riga. It was launched the month Lenin expelled many of Russia’s most prestigious scientists because they refused to conform to Bolshevik thinking. Ransome’s book about the subsequent voyage, Racundra’s First Cruise, ignored politics completely.
Roland Chambers’s fascinating biography of this curious man is entitled The Last Englishman and subtitled The Double Life of Arthur Ransome. The book focuses on Ransome’s intelligence work, which was for both the Bolsheviks and the British, most intensively so when they were at loggerheads. On one trip to London, he helped smuggle millions of roubles worth of diamonds out of Russia which was used to fund the Comintern. He also reported about Lenin to the Foreign Office.
Ransome’s father, a pious Yorkshire academic, sent him to Rugby School, where he was a poor student. But he had an inspirational Classics master who was an expert in Sanskrit and Eastern folklore. This man spent his summer holidays sailing with local fishermen in the Aegean while translating British sea shanties into Latin and ancient Greek. He gave Ransome’s imagination wings by encouraging his attempts to write. It is possible that to him we ultimately owe the joy of reading about John, Susan, Titty and Roger in their little dinghy Swallow, and Nancy and Peggy in the Amazon, and their shared adventures on Wild Cat Island, in defiance of the malfeasant Uncle Jim, or “Captain Flint”.
After Rugby, Ransome took an unsatisfactory job in Fleet Street, made a wholly unsuitable marriage, had a daughter from whom he was soon semi-estragned, and wrote a controversial book about Oscar Wilde which provoked a law suit from Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1913, he threw everything up and headed to Russia, intending to learn the language and study the folklore, possibly in imitation of his old Classics master.
By 1917, he was a convinced supporter of the Revolution, and accredited correspondent for the Manchester Guardian at Bolshevik headquarters in the Smolny. It was there, in a queue for scarce potatoes, that he met Evgenya Shelepina, who was Trotsky’s secretary. They spent the rest of their lives together, with Evgenya affectionately calling him “ducky” because of the odd way he walked due a crucifying haemorrhoid condition.
In his intelligence work, Ransome was not a double agent: he was an agent of each side at the same time, which is a different thing. A double agent deceives his first employer by working for the other side against the first one. Ransome did not do that. He worked for both sides hoping, as naively as some of his fictional characters, to bring about reconciliation between capitalism and communism.
Lenin appears to have thought of him as one of the “useful idiots” from the West who could help to make Bolshevism respectable enough that devastated, post-revolutionary Russia could obtain credits and trade agreements. The British were less tolerant. In 1920, the order went out to arrest him as he passed through Helsinki at the time he was helping Russia to arrange a peace treaty with Estonia.
But the agent arrested the wrong journalist, so Ransome was able to finish his business in Finland and travel happily on to Norway, bearing a letter of accreditation from Lenin. From there he crossed to Newcastle, where he announced himself as an agent of Her Majesty’s government who had “run considerable risks of detection at the hands of the Bolsheviks” while gathering information vital to Britain’s interests.
Secret service men shadowed him as he travelled to London. At King’s Cross, he was arrested—by a man in a bowler hat who offered to carry his bags for him en route to Scotland Yard. There, Ransome was interviewed by Sir Basil Thompson, the head of Special Branch, who wanted to find out where his loyalties ultimately lay. Thompson asked him straight out what his politics were. Ransome replied: “Fishing”, adding that he was anxious to get out of town as the trout season was about to open.
That worked. He was allowed to go about his business, and return to the land of violently imposed but still, to him, romantic egalitarianism. However when the New Economic Policy was introduced, abandoning pure Bolshevism, Ransome suddenly got bored with politics. After a few years’ aimless coming and going, he retired to the Lake District with Evgenia, and settled down to writing the series of delightful, if now rather dated, sailing stories that made him one of the world’s best selling children’s authors of the mid-twentieth century. The two of them lived happily ever after, into ripe old age, never giving Russia another serious thought.